This is a guest post by Peggy Rowe-Linn sharing an experience of mercy in this Year of Mercy.
Leonard moved into the carport at my office one freezing December many years ago. My first encounter with him was around 1:00 a.m. I couldn’t sleep, so I felt I might as well work. So, I had returned to my office to work on an interstate adoption case for an eight-year old orphan that I felt Cook County, Illinois, was mistreating. As I whipped into my parking space, my car lights illuminated the body of a shivering man. If he hadn’t been shivering, I would have thought him dead. It was somewhere around 38 degrees outside, unheard of for South Florida.
Surprisingly, the car lights didn’t waken him. I looked at this rail of a human and couldn’t believe what he was wearing—a thin shirt, some khaki pants, a pair of socks. He was sleeping on his shoes—common with the homeless—so no one steals them. No jacket, no sweater, no hat, no gloves. He had managed to wrap himself haphazardly in some brown wrapping paper—the type that is used in shipping packages. He was lying on a cardboard box that had been flattened.
I ran upstairs debating with myself whether to take the only blanket in my office down to him. Why the debate? The blanket didn’t belong to me. It was my child’s favorite blanket. I couldn’t help but notice on one side was a large lion and the other side was a lamb. Well, I couldn’t let someone die on my property, could I? No, I could not. I ran downstairs and spread the blanket out over him. As the soft, warm, heavy blanket landed on him, he woke up somewhat startled, looked up at me and said, “Ain’t no white woman ever been this nice to me.”
I told him two things. One, the blanket wasn’t mine, so I needed it back in the morning when he left and two, he had to be out by 5:00 a.m., as that is when the downtown area started to wake up. I didn’t want any kids from the adjacent school to see him or their parents and be startled. “No problem.” I went back up to my office to pull an “all nighter”—something that was becoming more and more frequent in my solo practice.
Around six in the morning I left to go home, take a shower and return. As I walked out of the office, there was the blanket all folded up neatly at the top of the steps waiting for me. No sign of my guest. I was relieved. I put the blanket inside my office for safekeeping and went home.
Over the next few weeks, the ritual was repeated. I would arrive. I would run upstairs and get the blanket. Run downstairs. Cover up Leonard. He would open his eyes, thank me and the next morning the blanket would be folded at the top of the stairs. I wondered where he went and what he did. I asked him if he was homeless one night. His response was classic. “No, I just live out of doors. I wasn’t made for a house.”
We made small talk from time to time. I had decided that I would get Leonard some gifts for Christmas and give them to him when I left the office on Christmas Eve. When I handed him the wrapped packages on Christmas Eve, Leonard was shocked and quite delighted. I was so proud of me, I just wanted to pat myself on the back. I bought him a “winterized” camping bag, a bushel of fresh Florida oranges in a netted bag and a plastic Christmas tree filled with little chocolates. You would have thought I had given him the world. I told him I would return with some dinner the next night.
Good to my word, I returned on Christmas night. There was Leonard sitting on the steps to my office adjacent to the carport. Where the heck were his gifts? It must have been 28 degrees that Christmas and it is never that cold in South Florida, but we had a cold snap that year. I jumped out of the car with a plate full of food, nearly spilling it in the rush, and handed it to Leonard.
“Leonard, where are your things?” I inquired.
“Well, you know, it’s Christmas, so I thought I would go by and see my brother. He’s got AIDS. He’s not going to be here much longer. He is really quite thin now. He gets colder than me, so for Christmas I gave him the sleeping bag. I can get it when he passes on. He needs it more than I do. I’m not sick like him.”
“Well, what about the candy, Leonard?” I asked.
“Well, I stopped by to pay my respects to my sister-in-law. She’s been real good to me. I thought, well, it’s Christmas, she’s just going to love that candy even more than me. So, I gave her the candy and said, ‘Merry Christmas,’ Miss Betty. She was so happy, she gave me a piece and it was really good. It just made her day!”
By this time you could see the smile on Leonard’s face. He face was resolutely calm and joyful at the same time.
“And, the oranges, Leonard, who got the oranges?” I asked.
“Well, every now and then I get down to the shelter and get a meal. They got some good cooks, but they don’t use any fresh fruit. They always got that canned fruit. It don’t taste too bad. It’s just not the same as the fresh fruit. And, well, it’s Christmas, so I thought we sure would like to all have some of those nice, fresh oranges. So, all of us got an orange today. Today was a great day! And, besides, it’s Christmas!”
I was nearly in tears by that time. You see, I had given to Leonard freely, it’s true, but it didn’t really cost me that much when I thought of what it cost Leonard. Leonard had given as Christ gave. He gave everything! He gave every single gift he had been given. He gave it ALL away. I was almost ashamed of myself for trying to pat myself on the back. Fighting back the tears, I asked Leonard if there was anything I could give him that he might like to keep for himself.
Leonard said, “Well, you know I once fancied myself sort of a street preacher. It sure would be nice to have my own Bible. You wouldn’t have one of those up in your office would you?”
“Actually, Leonard, I do. I’ll be right back.” I ran up the stairs and grabbed my bible. I wrote “To the best preacher I have ever met! Merry Christmas, Leonard!” I quickly wrapped it up and ran back down the stairs.
When I handed the wrapped Bible to Leonard, he opened it. He was beaming from ear to ear. I couldn’t resist saying to him, “Leonard, if you ever feel the need to give that Bible away, it will be okay with me. You see, Leonard, your life is the gospel. I’m not real sure you need that book I just gave you. Seems to me that you are carrying it around in your heart.”
* * * * *
As I reflect on this life event, it speaks volumes to me of God’s divine mercy. Initially, the reader might be tempted to admire me for helping out someone who “lived outdoors.” Feeding the homeless is certainly one of the corporal acts of mercy. But I am always reminded that Leonard represents God’s mercy to me. How? God called me to see Jesus in Leonard and to recognize that Leonard is a merciful reminder of all we need to do in the world: we need to see Jesus in everyone.
We can become nearly amnesiac when we try to pat ourselves on the back—not to mention how physically challenging that is for most of us. God sent Leonard to me so that I might learn the meaning of giving from the heart from all I had. This is the mercy of God! God sent me a gentle reminder that I am called to be holy and do God’s work always! Leonard was probably as close to ”Jesus in the flesh and blood” as I will see in the flesh and blood during my life. I thank God for His mercy for sending me someone who could teach me such an incredible life lesson.